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African Americans and Africa

Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden—

In January 1830, a year after David Walker published his Appeal, fifty-one-year-old George M. Erskine of Tennessee set sail for the newly settled colony of Liberia. With him aboard the brig Liberia were his wife Hagar, fifty; seven of their eight children—Jane, thirty; Wallace, twenty-one; Mary, seventeen; Weir, fifteen; Martha, thirteen; Hopkins, ten; and Sarah, seven—and his seventy-one-year-old mother-in-law, Martha Gains, said to be African-born. George Erskine was literate, and all his children could read as well. Records show the family arrived in Africa a month later. Sadly, the documents also note that within a year of their arrival, George, Hagar, and four of their children had died. Cause of death for George and his daughter Mary was listed as unknown, although we know from later correspondence that Mr. Erskine died of a fever. Weir died by drowning. The rest were reported to have died of fever. Only two of the Erskine children would survive to adulthood.

What, we might ask, prompted a free black man to take his family from a life he knew and understood, even with all its hardships, to a place he had never seen? We do not know exactly what motivated the Erskines to leave Tennessee, but George’s response to a query about why he was leaving tells us much: “I am going to a new country to settle myself and family as agriculturalists; to a country where we shall at least be on a level with any of our fellow citizens; where the complexion will be no barrier to our filling the most exalted station. I shall cultivate the land assigned me . . . and if it pleases God to spare my life, shall always be ready to do good as opportunity offers.” The Erskines sought a better life. Although George Erskine would not live to see it, his son would in adulthood fill an “exalted station,” while his daughter Martha was offered many opportunities, as her father had hoped.

From the moment Africans were enslaved in their native lands, they sought ways to (re)connect with Africa and expressed the desire to return. Those captured in coastal areas often tried to escape before being loaded on ships. Once on board, some attempted to return by jumping overboard, which often resulted in death. On the high seas, en route to their lifetime of bondage, suicide was frequently a way for the enslaved to gain their freedom and “return” home. In the early days of slavery, African-born men and women continued the practices and customs brought from their native lands, articulating their continued link to Africa. In South Carolina and Virginia, enslaved men and women frequently expressed their hope of going “across grandywater,” the Atlantic Ocean. As we have seen, even in Northern states African-descended men and women preserved elements of their past, whether in the parade traditions, Negro election days, the music and dance they continued to practice, or in their burial rites.

As the number of those who were American-born grew, blacks in the United States found other ways to maintain their connection to Africa. Often, as we have seen, it was in the naming of their institutions. At other times, it was in how they articulated their longing to “return” to lands from which their mothers and fathers had been taken. For many, this was more an aspiration than a reality, an attempt to highlight their ties to Africa. By the end of the eighteenth century most African Americans were reconciled to their position in the new American nation. Those enslaved in Southern states for the most part had their lives determined for them by slave owners. The newly freed and free black population, particularly in Northern states, had to decide what their identity and place in the new nation would be. Many questioned their place in the United States, highlighting “their connection to Africa, and their doubts about whether Blacks, as a race, could achieve equality in the United States.” Others strove to prove they were worthy of inclusion.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some African Americans sought to establish permanent relationships with Africa by physical migration and settlement. Others came together to oppose any form of out-migration. The Negro Conventions that began in the early nineteenth century were a vocal rejection of colonization and emigration. As blacks negotiated their status and place in American society, Africa featured prominently in the many debates. We can see the many ways African Americans engaged with Africa. Some identified with the continent, highlighting their heritage and ties to it, while others showed interest in being involved with African issues, recognizing that their fate was inextricably linked with dominant, largely derogatory, perceptions of the continent. The ambivalence we see in many reflections on Africa had to do with the negative way Africa was represented. How African Americans perceived those representations frequently affected their status in the United States and influenced their choice to stay or leave. It also shaped their relationship to the continent.

From African Americans and America by Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.


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